(Podcast) Rockets’ Kirkland working hard to earn entry-level deal

By Glen Erickson
Justin Kirkland - Kelowna Rockets

Photo: Kelowna Rockets forward and Nashville Predators prospect Justin Kirkland has produced 66 goals and 96 assists in 190 regular season games, and another 16 points in 29 playoff games (courtesy of Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)

 

 

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Justin Kirkland is one of a relatively small number of junior hockey players to be selected in the 2014 NHL Draft. For certain, this is reason to be optimistic.

On the other hand, he remains one of many from that draft class who have yet to be signed to an NHL contract.

When an NHL team selects a player from one of Canada’s major junior hockey leagues, the team effectively has two years to offer that prospect an NHL entry-level contract. In Kirkland’s case, it could be easily understood if he has a calendar with a big “X” marked on the date June 1st, 2016. That’s the date by which the Nashville Predators have a decision to make, one that will have an enormous impact on Kirkland’s NHL aspirations.

Selected in the third round, 62nd overall, by the Predators, Kirkland continues to ply his trade with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, evolving over three seasons into an important leader and consistent offensive producer. Now 19, the lanky forward who grew up in Camrose, Alberta, has had the very good fortune to learn one particularly important lesson during his junior career – he has learned how to win.

Kirkland is 60 games into his third full campaign with the Rockets, a team that has occupied one of the top two spots in the WHL standings for the entire 2015-16 season. In each of the previous three seasons, Kelowna has won over 50 regular season games. Kirkland has been along for the past two, including a trip to the Memorial Cup championship game last season. With nine games remaining this season, the Rockets have 44 wins to their credit.

At 6’3” and 190 pounds, Kirkland has become an imposing force among WHL forwards. His versatility is a below-the-radar quality, as he is often viewed simply as a reliable top-six forward. With his reach and strength on his stick, he is effective on the power play and the penalty kill. It should be noted, however, that Kirkland tends to do most of his goal-scoring at even strength. Of his 26 goals this season, two have come with the man advantage and another two have come while the Rockets were shorthanded. All told, Kirkland has collected 59 points in 60 games.

Born in Winnipeg, his family relocated to Alberta’s heartland when Justin was four years old. His minor hockey upbringing took place in Camrose, a central Alberta city with strong hockey roots. Camrose is home to the Kodiaks, an organization that consistently produced upper echelon teams in the Alberta Junior Hockey League during many of Kirkland’s formative years. It was not uncommon for local youngsters to aspire to wear a Kodiaks jersey one day. Such was the case for Kirkland.

But things changed for Kirkland when the Rockets made him the 103rd pick at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, where Kelowna also nabbed forwards Rourke Chartier (SJS) and Riley Stadel, who are teammates of Kirkland’s to this day. After helping the Camrose AAA Bantam team to its first-ever postseason berth, Kirkland was selected by the Rockets in the fifth round. While not necessarily viewed as a blue-chip prospect at the time, his 6’1” and 145-pound frame suggested a growth spurt was likely.

En route to the WHL, Kirkland pulled up stakes after his bantam hockey days and left Camrose for Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. It was there that he played in the midget program for the Argos in the Saskatchewan AAA Midget Hockey League.

Kirkland recalls a coincidental series of events that enabled him to get a healthy dose of hockey in Kelowna while attending Notre Dame. The college would regularly send one of its midget teams to an annual tournament in the Okanagan Valley, the Kelowna International Major Midget Tournament (KIMMT). The Rockets had called Kirkland up from his midget team in Notre Dame during the 2012-13 season and he was in Kelowna for much of the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day. With KIMMT scheduled for the first week of January, Kirkland prolonged his stay with the Rockets and basically arrived in Kelowna a couple of weeks ahead of his Notre Dame Argos teammates. His personal preparation for the tournament included suiting up for a handful of WHL games as a 15-year-old.

Later that season, the Rockets lost their captain, Colton Sissons (NSH), to an injury and he could not play in the postseason. Kirkland returned to Kelowna and was utilized to provide some roster depth, appearing in six WHL playoff games. Kirkland and Sissons have remained in contact and of recent note, the Predators signed Sissons to a three-year contract earlier this week.

Kirkland has played over 220 games for the Rockets. He has become a leader and a calming influence in a hockey-mad city. HF spoke with Kirkland following an off-day skate in Kelowna, prior to the team’s departure for Everett, Washington.

Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51